Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Game Time: Preparing for your First Friday Night Magic

It’s a Friday night in late February 2011, and I’m driving from my (now) alma-mater, UMBC, to Xanadu Games in Baltimore.  Joining me are my friends Mirran Crusader, Hero of Bladehold, and the always-trustworthy Knight Exemplar.  I have spent about 2 weeks tuning my super awesome White Knights deck since the release of Mirrodin Beseiged, but I had only ever played this deck (or any deck I had ever built) against other people at my school or at my friend’s house.  It had done fairly well, and I’m generally pleased with its performance.  But I didn’t know what I was driving into – on the surface, it seemed like your traditional brick-and-mortar local game store (LGS) that sold cards.  When I walked through the doors, though, my entire opinion on Magic changed.

Playing at an LGS is, in so many ways, unlike any kitchen table where you’ve ever played Magic.  I witnessed people playing more quickly, there were fewer “taksie-backsies,” and people there seemed genuinely emotional when they won and lost.  Magic wasn’t just a game, to them – it was a lifestyle and a passion.  Little did I know on that cold February evening that I would soon feel the same way about my sacred pieces of cardboard, but, that night, I had nothing but a 75-card deck (glad I knew what a sideboard was!), a flimsy Ultra-Pro deck box, and a piece of paper with accompanying pen to keep my life totals (because I wanted to be ahead of the game that night).

I was nervous…really, really nervous.  Hearing the “MtG slang” around the room gave me the chills.  These people knew what they were doing.  Responding to triggers (internally, I’m thinking “What the Hell is a trigger?!”), playing cards on the second main phase, and responding to upkeep effects (you could do that?).  All I have ever done is slam dudes on a table and attack/block, with a few cards in my hand that I knew I could play before I attacked (Oblivion Ring and Journey to Nowhere).  The folks here intimidated me instantly.  Some were huge, others seemed unforgiving to mistakes, and others still just made me think “God, please don’t let me play him – I don’t want to lose already!”  Luckily, even with all of the intimidation, the folks running the store took me in with open arms.  They could definitely see I was new, and they didn’t want me leaving feeling sour about Magic.  They let me know that the “crew” was pretty competitive, but that they were open to newer players.  The key thing they told me was “Don’t be afraid to ask them questions.”  A few minutes later, we’re off and playing.  

I’ll spare the match reports, etc., etc.  I didn’t do well.  I think I won…1 game of the 11 that I played through 5 rounds.  Was I a bit upset?  Definitely.  But, I learned more that night than in every kitchen table session I had ever been a part of.  My opponents gave me advice after each match on how to improve (yes, some jokingly said “play Caw-Blade!”).  Even the owners talked to me afterwards, giving me some advice on how to approach competitive Magic, and encouraged me to keep coming back.  And come back I did.  That place was my second home on Thursday and Friday nights as I improved my game, made friends, and spent a few too many paychecks on cards and sleeves.
Today, I no longer go to Xanadu regularly (I moved about an hour down the road), but that Friday night sparked what is now my passion, and I only have them to thank.

“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy…
…He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready”
- Eminem, “Lose Yourself”

Maybe you’re thinking about taking a break from the kitchen table and trying out your local game store on a Friday night when you have nothing else going on.  I can bet you’re any or all of the following:
  •          Nervous
  •           Intimidated
  •           Scared
  •           Excited
  •           Cautious
  •           Unfamiliar with all of the rules
  •           Unfamiliar with all of the cards
The first piece of advice I want to give to any player thinking about going to their first Friday Night Magic is this: We’ve all been there!
We’ve all had to walk into a store for the first time with a deck of cards, not knowing how the evening would go.  For me, it was a mix of excitement and downright fear.  I knew everyone there was probably better than me, and it definitely showed in my performance.  The first time jitters happen to everyone; we started playing competitive Magic much in the same way you, young Planeswalker, are about to – by cautiously walking through the doors of Joe Schmoe’s Comics and Games.  You have a right to be nervous – frankly, I’d be a bit concerned if you weren’t  a bit nervous walking in.  Just remember – We’ve all been there.

If you really want to be ahead of the curve for your first FNM, you might do some research to see what some of the better decks in the format are.  Usually, you’ll be playing Standard Constructed at FNM, although you may see Draft and Sealed as the format du jour.  If that is the case, take some time to check out some primers for Draft and Sealed.  I always listen to Limited Resources to help my limited game.  For Constructed formats, check out MtGTop8 before your FNM endeavor.  You’ll get a feel for what you might play against.  You may also find it useful to check out some strategy websites before going – Legit MTG, StarCityGames and Channel Fireball are just a few of the better ones out there.  Reddit even has a community dedicated to Magic players!.  It’s more of a forum-based learning tool, but I’ve gotten a lot out of the content there. 

In the end, your goal is to learn at your first FNM (and beyond) – take advantage of your resources!
The next piece of advice for an aspiring Planeswalker is one that will give you more peace of mind as you embark on your quest: Talk to the tournament organizer (TO) and the judge(s) who are there!  These are the folks who are guaranteed to help you on your way.  I’m sure many players will guide you, as well, but the TO and judges are there to help.  That is their job, after all!  Your first and biggest resource when you arrive for your first Friday Night Magic (FNM) are the TO and judges at the store.  Maybe you don’t know what a sideboard is, or maybe you don’t even have a legal deck on hand to play with, or maybe your cards are in not-so-good shape but have never heard of sleeves (as a judge, I’ve gone so far as to even buy a set of sleeves for a new player to help them out…and, of course, prevent marked cards).  You’d be surprised how much you can gain from a 5-minute conversation with a TO and a judge, especially if you’re new.  More importantly, you’ll start to feel your comfort level increase as you get to talking.  As judges and organizers, it is very rewarding to see a new player smile as they talk to you more and more. 

As you ease yourself into your first FNM, you’ll probably be afraid to ask questions.  Don’t be!  As mentioned earlier, the TO and judges are your first resource – ask as many questions as you need to.  Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask other players questions!  Again, we’ve all been there – the new kid on the block – and we were happy to have other people to talk to.  As veterans of the game, we want to make sure that our new players stick around and make our local players group grow.  Don’t know how a card works?  Ask!  Never seen a card before?  Ask to see it!  Don’t know why your creature is supposed to die?  Ask!  If a player is being less than forgiving about you asking, talk to a judge about it!  Trust me when I say that asking questions is pivotal to growth, in Magic and beyond.
At some point during your first FNM, you’ll inevitably be playing Magic!  The next few pieces of advice are meant to help you during your games:

  • Greet your opponent.  This one is pretty simple – starting off any meeting with a pleasantry is more likely to keep your interactions with one another positive.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, let your opponent know you are new...until after a match.  Most opponents will already know.  But, if they don’t, and you suddenly say you’re new to the game during a match, you’re basically putting a sign on yourself that says “Take advantage of me – I assume you know what you’re doing!”   It’s fine to ask for advice, ask questions, and take your time playing, but give yourself as much credit as you can.
  • If you have a question at all during a match, ask a judge!  Sure, you may think “Well, my opponent will know what’s going on!”  Sure, he/she probably does.  But, you will sometimes get an opponent who will try and give him/herself an advantage by telling you how the interaction occurs.  Sometimes, they’re right.  Other times, they’re trying to take advantage of your lack of knowledge (see above!).  If you need clarification on a rules interaction, call a judge.  You can even ask to step away from the table if you want.  Judges are your friends…seriously!
  • Remember to de-sideboard, if you have one!  This isn’t your kitchen table Magic experience.  While you’ll hopefully have as much, if not more fun while at FNM, you have to follow the rules.  A lot players don’t know that they have to return their deck to its original state after a match.  You also cannot “pre-board,” meaning that, if you’re playing a Red/Green deck and you know that ahead of time, you can’t put those trusty sideboarded Flashfreeze in and take your maindecked Mana Leak out!  If you have questions on sideboarding, ask a judge.  I would recommend bringing a copy of your deck list with you so you can be sure you returned your deck to its original state.
    Take ALL the Notes!
  • Take notes.  A lot of them.  You’re going to be flooded with information at your first FNM – tips, strategies, rules interactions, etc.  Whether you make these discoveries, or other players help you along the way, you’ll want a way to write them down for easy access later.  Bring a memo book and a pen, not only to keep track of life totals, but to take notes.  You’ll learn more if you can absorb the information easily.
  • Always ask before touching your opponents’ cards!  Believe it or not, your opponents value the contents of their decks!  Before ever touching one of their cards (to read it, take it under your control, etc.), always ask if you can touch their cards.  Some players are more possessive than others, and may want your hands off.  That’s their right, even if a little weird, and you always want to put your best foot forward.  If you think that your opponent is going a bit too far with this, though, talk to a judge.
  • Probably not this awesome...yet.
  • Don’t be afraid to lose.  Because it’s going to happen.  Unless you have 5 teenage friends, and their powers combine, transforming you into Captain Planet, you’re probably not going to save the Multiverse on your first trip to FNM.  You’re going to lose games, and you’re probably going to lose multiple games.  The key thing here is to learn from your experiences.  Take notes, talk to people, and learn.  I see far too many new players get discouraged at their first FNM after losing, and I usually try and talk to them to let them know that they’re not the only ones who have been there.  If you lose, don’t take it as a failure.  Instead, transform that loss into an opportunity to grow.  You’ll have won in the end, even if the standings say otherwise.
  • Make friends!  Everyone is more comfortable when they’re around friends, and Magic is no different.  By becoming part of a store’s “regulars,” you begin to develop relationships with the players and staff there.  Naturally, this makes you feel better when you show up on Fridays.  Take the time to get to know everyone, and talk to people!  For the shy, this will take time, and that’s okay!  Over time, your comfort level will hopefully increase.  Don’t be afraid to take a risk and get to know some of the players there.  You’ll get to know them, they’ll get to know you, and you’ll learn from one another.  These friendships can last a lifetime – the same people I met almost 2 years ago at Xanadu are the ones that I still talk to on Facebook, Twitter, and at local tournaments.

After your FNM experience, take the time to absorb what you were a part of.  Read over your notes.  Look at your deck and make changes, based on recommendations, what you think would be better, etc.  The key thing for any new player is to grow from their experiences.  If you take each experience as a chance to learn, you’re bound to become a better player.  Keep in mind that growth takes time.  You’re not going to become a player with the skill of Brian Kibler overnight, or maybe ever, but I can guarantee that your play will improve if you take the time to learn from your experiences.
I hope that this primer will help you feel more confident as you venture out into the Magic world.  There’s a lot to see beyond the kitchen table, and if you see with an open set of eyes, there is a ton to discover and enjoy.   I wish you all the best, and I hope to see you at FNM!

Twitter: @wingmanmtg
Reddit: wingman2011


  1. Thanks for the article! I found it very helpful! I'm going to FNM soon and thought that this was a great helper to expect what to come. Thanks again!

  2. Reading this article really boosted my confidence for tonight's FNM :3 I'm still really scared since it's my first time, but I know it'll turn out great in the end.

  3. Thank you for this article. Tonight is my first FNM ever and really I have only played one game of Magic. I'm really scared but this article at least lets me know I'm not the only one.

  4. Thanks going to do well now. Watch out vets im comming

  5. I was extremely scared but thanks to this article i feel more comfortable, im looking forward to my first FNM!

  6. I was extremely scared but thanks to this article i feel more comfortable, im looking forward to my first FNM!